Wednesday 5 July 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

A few thoughts on We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

This one has been on my reading list for a long, long time. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Haunting of Hill House was properly creepy, when I read it years ago, and Life Among the Savages revealed a very human side of Jackson (a lot has been written about this duality in her writing; it makes me like her even more).

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, actually accomplishes a very strange feat: it takes the atmospheric creepiness of Hill House and combines it with some of the familial-affection vibes of Savages. Mary Catherine, nicknamed Merrikat in the family, is a teenager living with her elder sister Constance and her physically handicapped uncle Julian. They live in a large mansion in a New England town, and are well known as the original “rich folks” of the area. Because of their standoffishness, the townsfolk hate them. 6 years ago, everyone else in their large family was murdered - arsenic in their sugar. Constance was arrested but eventually released for lack of evidence.

Merrikat is a very unreliable narrator. She believes in what is called Sympathetic Magic - where objects belonging to certain people or associated with certain events acquire mystical powers. So she might nail her father’s notebook to a tree, or bury his silver coins, to protect the mansion and the attenuated family from evil spirits. She also is completely happy in her present time - with her sister and with her uncle around, she needs no one else. They all have a very fixed weekly routine of cleaning, cooking, and of Merrikat going to the village for supplies.

Things change when Constance’s cousin, Charles, shows up one day. (By the way, it’s the strength of Jackson’s writing that she doesn’t hurry up this event at all - she manages to coax us into Merrikat’s little world so thoroughly that we don’t feel the need for anything else, either, and we feel this intrusion as badly as she, Merrikat, does). I will not talk any more about which way things go after this arrival, but it’s a masterclass in subtle character studies.

Considering this is Shirley Jackson we’re talking about, we’d expect spirits and malevolent influences to pop up sooner rather than later. The story goes off in a different direction, though, and gets bad enough even without those props.

Absolutely impressive stuff, and I’d highly recommend it for all readers who don’t mind a slow burn read. 

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